If a performance artist sits in a vacant gallery, is it art?
Recently, the FYI Book Club gathered at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art to discuss “The Museum of Modern Love” by Heather Rose and how art affects its viewers — and vice versa.
Rose’s American debut (she has published numerous other books in her native Australia) is an imaginative blend of real and fictional characters — performance artist Marina Abramovic and imagined attendees of her piece “The Artist Is Present.”
The novel opens on the eve of this landmark 2010 exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Running three months, it was the cornerstone of a major retrospective of Abramovic’s work. For 75 days, the Serbian artist sat in a chair on one side of a table and faced visitors who sat opposite her, one at a time.
They gazed into each other’s eyes for as long as the guest wished. Abramovic never broke the stare and never spoke a word.
Rose was one of the fortunate attendees who sat with her. She was inspired to complete the novel she’d started five years earlier, but it would take 15 years before the book was published. Readers immediately homed in on the way it connected them to the art and how its characters connected with one another.
“I wanted to write about the mystical experience of writing and creating,” said Rose, who dropped in for a video conference call with the book club from her hometown of Hobart, Tasmania. “Muses came and went during this entire process. They reminded me of the angels in the film ‘City of Angels.’”
One book club participant felt that the myriad characters’ thoughts bordered on the divine.
“Reading about the characters’ connections seemed spiritual, an unearthly linking with someone they’ve lost,” said Linda Wood of Lenexa. “In (main character) Arky’s situation, it is his wife who put up barriers between them. Arky sitting with Marina makes him realize he needs to reconnect with his wife.”
Karen Stigers of Kansas City, Kan., noted that Arky changed after his multiple visits to the exhibit.
“Arky finally, truly looked at his wife,” Stigers said. “She was looking out the window, and he turns her chair so they can look at each other. This explains why Arky wasn’t connecting with his daughter, either. He wasn’t really looking at Alice; he didn’t see her. Sitting with Marina Abramovic changed that. Marina taught Arky to look at people.”
Peggy Martinez of Kansas City observed that people answered their own questions after sitting with Abramovic. “Marina taught people to find their answers. Arky has all these questions about his life and why his wife isn’t a part of it, and he finally came up with answers and realized what was important from his sitting with Marina.”
Evelyn Summers of Raytown pointed to one character who never participated but changed. “Jane didn’t even sit with Marina,” she said. “Just her experience of being in the gallery and observing others seated with the artist had her re-evaluating her life. She understands what to do next even though she continues to grieve for her (recently deceased) husband.”
Maureen Grigsby of Overland Park was fascinated with the idea of viewers being part of the performance art. “What makes an artist decide to do something like this? It’s a whole different way of looking at the world,” she said.
She asked Laura Pensar of Mission, one of the FYI Book Club participants with performance art experience, to explain what makes performance art different from other artistic expressions.
“The art you see on the walls was created to be a discrete object, to have a life of its own on the wall,” Pensar said. “Performance art exists in the time that it happens, in the environment and with the people who are there to witness it. All of those things together make the piece itself.
“‘The Artist Is Present’ isn’t just Marina in a chair. It’s the whole exhibit. It involves all the people in the room.”
Just like a good book discussion.
Kaite Stover is the Kansas City Public Library’s director of reader’s services.
Join the club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email email@example.com. Look in the Arts+Culture section March 31 for an introduction to the next selection, “Lost Children Archive” by Valeria Luiselli.